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Rouge Beer
Rouge Beer

This Beer Was Brewed Using Yeast Grown in a Beard

Rouge Beer
Rouge Beer

Beer basically consists of four things: hops, barley, water, and yeast. The hops add that flavor that we’ve come to know as beer, but without yeast, no one would experience its intoxicating effects. Of the more than 1600 strains of yeast, only a select few can ferment sugars into alcohol. While most yeast, which is a fungus, comes from rotting fruits, bugs, or animals, a new strain being used by Rogue Brewery in Newport, Oregon, came from a most unlikely place—the master brewer’s beard.

The Rogue brewers had been searching for an exclusive yeast to match with their homegrown barley and hops and sent three samples they found in their hop yard to culture. Sample after sample failed to produce yeast that would ferment.    

Someone joked that brew master John Maier’s 34-year-old beard might be a perfect medium to grow yeast. He agreed to try it, and plucked nine hairs from his beard, which were sent to White Labs for testing and culturing (culturing makes it seem as if the hairs watched opera and read Shakespeare, but it means they were primed to grow yeast). It turns out, Maier's beard hairs can produce yeast—and pretty decent yeast at that.

Maier’s beard yeast is a blend of Rogue’s workhorse yeast, Pacman, and a wild brewer’s yeast. Wild brewer’s yeasts act unpredictably, only fermenting some of the alcohol, but in the case of the beard yeast, it worked so well that it created a crisp flavor not typically associated with the unruly varieties. It was such a shock that the scientists at White Labs double-checked the results because they feared they had accidentally profiled the Pacman yeast instead of the beard yeast.  

This caused us to wonder why Maier’s beard has such an interesting yeast blend. It turns out that yeast isn’t very mobile. Someone or something has to transport the yeast. But, these fungi grow uncontrollably in places like a brewery. So unknown to Maier, he was a walking Petri dish for the Pacman yeast used at Rogue. And he might have picked up the wild yeast from eating something fruity, creating this unique blend for beer. The brewery notes that Maier's beard has attended more than 15,000 brews, making it the perfect habitat for this unusual yeast.

When Maier, who vows never to cut his beard, learned that his facial hair was home to a unique yeast blend, he said, “It was in front of me the whole time and it only took two centuries and five decades to grow.”

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Big Questions
Why Do People Drink Mint Juleps at the Kentucky Derby?
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Whether you plan to enjoy the race from Churchill Downs or don an elaborate hat in the comfort of your own home, if you're watching the Kentucky Derby, you may find yourself sipping on a refreshing mint julep this weekend. But, why?

The drink—a cocktail traditionally composed of bourbon, sugar, water, and mint—has been a Kentucky favorite since long before Churchill Downs came into play. In fact, in 1816, silver julep cups were given as prizes at Kentucky county fairs (a change from the stuffed animals they offer today). And before that, a “julep” was considered medicinal, “prescribed” for stomach problems and sore throats.

Though mint juleps have likely been enjoyed at the Kentucky Derby since the beginning—legend has it that founder Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., planted mint for cocktails when he founded the track in 1875—the cocktail wasn’t declared the “official” Derby drink until 1938.

It was just a few years ago that the Derby switched to a more “authentic” version of the mint julep. For almost two decades, the 120,000 mint juleps served at the races were made with Early Times. Based on the aging process, Early Times isn’t considered bourbon (just “Kentucky whisky”) in the U.S. In 2015, they switched to Old Forester, which is also owned by the Brown-Forman Corporation.

Even with the switch to “real” bourbon, what most revelers actually get is the Old Forester Ready-to-Serve Cocktail mix, not a handcrafted mint julep—unless you’re willing to pony up $1000. For the past 13 years, Brown-Forman has served a special version of the drink made with Woodford Reserve small batch bourbon. It’ll set you back a grand, but hey, you get to keep the pewter cup—and proceeds benefit the Jennifer Lawrence Arts Fund (yes, that Jennifer Lawrence). In 2016, the Oscar-winning actress—and Louisville native—founded the organization "to assist and empower organizations that fulfill children's needs and drives art access to positively impact the lives of young people."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
The Surprising Role Bats Play in Making Your Margarita
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The next time you have a margarita, raise your glass to the humble bat. Long-nosed bats are the main pollinators of agave, the plant used to make both tequila and mezcal. (Tequila is specifically made from blue agave, or Agave tequilana, while mezcal can be made from any species of the plant.) These agave plants open their flowers at night, attracting bats with their sugary nectar, and in turn, the bats help spread their pollen.

One of those bats, the lesser long-nosed bat, just got off the endangered species list in April 2018, as The Washington Post reported. It's the first bat species ever to recover its population enough to be taken off the Endangered Species List. Its revival is due, in part, to tequila producers along the bat's migration route between Mexico and the southwestern U.S. making their growing methods a little more bat-friendly.

While the relationship between bats and agave might be mutualistic, the one between bats and booze isn't necessarily so. Typical agave production for tequila and mezcal involves harvesting the plant right before it reaches sexual maturity—the flowering stage—because that's when its sugar content peaks, and because after the plant flowers, it dies. Instead of letting the plants reproduce naturally through pollination, farmers plant the clones that grow at the agave plant's base, known as hijuelos. That means fields of agave get razed before bats get the chance to feed off those plants. This method is bad for bats, but it's not great for agave, either; over time, it leads to inbred plants that have lower genetic diversity than their cross-pollinated cousins, ones that require more and more pesticides to keep them healthy.

Rodrigo Medellín, an ecologist who has been nicknamed the "Bat Man of Mexico," has been leading the crusade for bat-friendly tequila for decades, trying to convince tequila producers to let some of just 5 percent of their plants flower. The Tequila Interchange Project—a nonprofit organization made up of tequila producers, scientists, and tequila enthusiasts—led to the release of three bat-friendly agave liquors in the U.S. in 2016: two tequilas, Siembra Valles Ancestral and Tequila Ocho, and a mezcal, Don Mateo de la Sierra.

In 2017, when Medellín and his team visited the agave fields of Don Mateo de la Sierra to gather data, they discovered that the project was even more bat-friendly than they thought. The Mexican long-nosed bat, another endangered species, was also taking its meals at the field's flowering plants.

This weekend, raise a glass of tequila to all the bats out there—just make sure it's a bat-friendly brand.

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